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Yellowstone bison opponents lose footing in brucellosis argument

By Adriana Fehrs

Tribal member Shane Hendrickson (pictured right) poses with his harvested bull bison and his father Drew Hendrickson (pictured left). The duo harvested the Bison back in October 2013. (Photo courtesy of tribal member Shane Hendrickson and Pablo Espinoza, CSKT Fish & Game) Tribal member Shane Hendrickson (pictured right) poses with his harvested bull bison and his father Drew Hendrickson (pictured left). The duo harvested the Bison back in October 2013. (Photo courtesy of tribal member Shane Hendrickson and Pablo Espinoza, CSKT Fish & Game)

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — For years, ranchers and livestock producers have opposed and thwarted bison ‘migration’ from Yellowstone National Park over concerns of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle. As science and efforts have reduced the risk of infection, bison opponents have changed tactics.

The brucellosis, ‘Brucella abortus’, bacteria is most known for causing abortions in cattle, bison, elk, and ‘Undulant Fever’ or ‘Bang’s disease’ in humans. It is commonly transmitted through direct contact with birth fluids, or in cases of human transmission – handling of infected animals, consumption of raw milk, or handling of infected raw meat. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) categorizes the bacteria, which localizes in the reproductive organs and/or the udders, as nonlethal. In cattle, it usually only arises late in pregnancy, causing an abortion or low birth weight, and then commonly does not effect future pregnancies. In humans it is “infectious with long term chronic but distressing febrile episodes rarely fatal with modern clinical management,” writes Russell W. Currier DVM, MPH for APHIS.

In 1917 the first document case of a bison contracting brucellosis from a domestic cattle in Montana occurred in the Lamar Valley. Scientists recognized the Brucellosis bacterium in 1897 and efforts to eradicate the bacteria began in the states in 1934. By 1941 an ‘effective vaccine’ deemed by the APHIS was developed. Funding from the government for the Brucellosis Eradiation Program headed the movement. “As of March 1, 2002, 48 States have achieved brucellosis-free status with no known infection,” writes the APHIS, and “Texas and Missouri are the only states in the nation not free of the bacterial disease, with only four herds quarantined.” states the Federation of Animal Science Societies (FASS).

A local cow takes a second to pose for a picture. Risks for brucellosis transmission are a main concern for cattle ranchers in Montana, but transmission rates a considered ‘very low’. Elk currently pose a greater threat for transmission for brucellosis than bison. (Adriana Fehrs photo) A local cow takes a second to pose for a picture. Risks for brucellosis transmission are a main concern for cattle ranchers in Montana, but transmission rates a considered ‘very low’. Elk currently pose a greater threat for transmission for brucellosis than bison. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

Now, the APHIS states, “Annual losses for lowered milk production, aborted calves and pigs, and reduced breeding has decreased to $1 million today, a reduction from the $400 million spent in 1957.” The FASS estimates “The cost of veterinary services is a relatively small percentage (5.4 percent) of the total mean cost of disease incidence. The reproductive tract disease class was the most costly class in terms of veterinary services for disease treatment ($0.99/cow). Dystocia, referring to difficult calving commonly from a large birth weight, was the disease condition with the largest veterinary treatment cost. The total mean annual cost of drugs used in the treatment of disease conditions was $1.22/cow. The enteric, miscellaneous, and respiratory tract disease classes had similar mean drug costs for disease treatment and ranged from $0.31 to $0.39/cow. The total mean annual cost of veterinary services for administration of preventive measures in these herds was $1.85/cow ($0 to $12.03). Pregnancy examination, breeding soundness examination in bulls, brucellosis vaccination, pulmonary arterial pressure test, and campylobacteriosis vaccination accounted for over 90 percent of the money spent for preventive veterinary services. Approximately 60 percent of the total mean annual disease prevention cost was attributed to the purchase of vaccines/drugs ($6.59/cow).”

One method Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Yellowstone National Park officials, and livestock producers have deemed appropriate, in the aid of brucellosis eradication, is the shooting and harvesting of migratory bison outside of Yellowstone Park, in the Gardiner and West Yellowstone area. The APHIS states, “More than 50 percent of the bison in YNP test positive for brucellosis. A positive test indicates that animals have been exposed and are most likely infected. The concern is that when these bison leave YNP, they may transmit brucellosis to cattle in the surrounding States.” But they go on to acknowledge, “All three States surrounding YNP are officially free of brucellosis.” Steph Gillin, Wildlife Biologist for CSKT Division of Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation says, “A bison can test sero-positive for brucellosis, meaning they have contracted the bacteria at some point, but doesn’t necessarily mean they are contagious.” Approximately 45 percent of Yellowstone bison test sero-positive, according to CKST Division of Fish, Wildlife, Parks and Conservation. They go on to state that there are no documented cases of transmission between wild bison and vaccinated domestic cattle, and chances of transmission are “very low”; less than a one percent chance, but a $956 billion Farm Bill, passed in February 2014, allots $3.5 billion for academic research for a brucellosis vaccine. Cases of transmission from wildlife to cattle are primarily elk; about fifteen percent of the YNP population test positive for brucellosis.

Through the smoke of a campfire, a group of tribal hunters work together to gut a bison in the deep December snow of 2012. The state has restricted bison from migrating outside of Yellowstone National Park to prevent brucellosis transmission, and allows tribal member to hunt the bison– a plus for tribal hunter, but is restrictive to certain areas, and only allowed from September to late January (Photo courtesy of Mike McElderry, CSKT-NRD-Fish & Game Program) Through the smoke of a campfire, a group of tribal hunters work together to gut a bison in the deep December snow of 2012. The state has restricted bison from migrating outside of Yellowstone National Park to prevent brucellosis transmission, and allows tribal member to hunt the bison– a plus for tribal hunter, but is restrictive to certain areas, and only allowed from September to late January (Photo courtesy of Mike McElderry, CSKT-NRD-Fish & Game Program)

Still, Montana legislation pushes the slaughter of any bison that travel outside of the Yellowstone park boundary. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks categorized bison as a keystone species, meaning the impact the animals have on the ecosystem is exponential to their population size, but Montana State rejected a bill in 2011 to place bison on the endangered species list, allowing the continued slaughter. A Montana district court recently ruled that Montana laws dealing with the wild or domestic status of bison are “ambiguous.”

State senators are also admitting that bison are becoming less of a concern for brucellosis transmission, but the opposition from cattle ranchers and livestock owners now comes in the fear of potential damage to their property if they are forced to allow migrating bison through their property as a part of Montana FW’s efforts to restore an ecological balance. Montana State Senator Rick Ripley, from Wolf Creek, Vice Chairman of the Senate Fish and Game Committee, said in a recently in a Montana district court, “The Montana legislature has purposely given joint jurisdiction over bison to our state’s livestock and wildlife agencies because bison pose a unique management situation. Bison have the capacity to do a great deal of damage to private property. That’s why we’ve made a deliberate choice not to treat bison the way we treat wildlife like deer or elk.” Republican State Senator John Brenden has pushed for legislation that prohibits the migration of bison outside of Yellowstone National Park.

Native Americans have hunted wild bison for centuries, always making sure to use every part of the animal. Bison hold many cultural ties to the animal and current legislation, which prohibits migrating bison outside of Yellowstone National Park, limits Native American hunters. (Photo courtesy of CSKT Division of Fish, Wildlife, Recreation & Conservation) Native Americans have hunted wild bison for centuries, always making sure to use every part of the animal. Bison hold many cultural ties to the animal and current legislation, which prohibits migrating bison outside of Yellowstone National Park, limits Native American hunters. (Photo courtesy of CSKT Division of Fish, Wildlife, Recreation & Conservation)

Environmental groups from Washington D.C. are advocating the relocation of bison from Yellowstone National Park onto public land in Eastern Montana, and they’ve been adamant those bison shouldn’t be confined in any way, shape or form. That means that these bison won’t just be relocated to public land, but that adjacent private landowners will be forced to host those bison as well. Montana FWP is moving ahead with a plan to allow bison on private property, ignoring overwhelming public opposition – most of which comes from cattle ranchers.

The road to a compromise or solution, however, has stalled. A second bison discussion scheduled for April 15-16 in Lewiston was canceled. “We worked to gather a large group of fundamentally different interests and constituencies, but there remained serious questions about intent and representation that are difficult to resolve,” said Jeff Hagener, director of FWP in Helena in a press release from the MTFWP. “The gathering was designed to review issues and possible alternatives for bison conservation and management, but at this point it would be counterproductive to proceed with the discussion.” The discussion group would have included conservation and agricultural representatives, state and federal agencies, county commissioners, and state legislators and members of the Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission.

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